The Telegraph and Mail should stop buying DWP briefings hook, line and sinker

People leave housing benefit all the time, but the DWP managed to turn no news into good news

This morning the Telegraph and Mail ran stories claiming the the government’s benefit cap was already proving a success nine months before it comes into effect. According to the Telegraph

Iain Duncan Smith, the Work and Pensions Secretary, is due to release figures which show that 1,700 people who would have been affected by the £26,000-a-year limit have taken up work since being warned about next year’s cap ...

"These figures show the benefit cap is already a success and is actively encouraging people back to work," Mr Duncan Smith said. "We need a welfare state that acts as a safety net and encourages people back to work." Mr Duncan Smith said that the figures would embarrass Labour, which had opposed the cap.

The statistics on which the stories were based were released by DWP this morning after the press stories had appeared, a form of sharp practice for which they have already been ticked off by the UK Statistics Authority. Even had Labour opposed the benefit cap (unfortunately, they didn’t), there would be little for them to worry about in today’s figures, which should rather be an embarrassment to the government and to the gullible journalists who faithfully wrote up what they had been briefed. In fact, the data shows roughly the opposite of what Mr Duncan Smith claims.

The figures are based on contact made by JobcentrePLus with 58,000 claimants who it was believed would be affected by the cap when it comes into effect, assuming they were still claiming at that point. Over the two month period since letters were sent to affected claimants warning them of the policy change, 1,700 are said to have moved into work. That’s 2.9 per cent of the total.

But the obvious question seems not to have been asked: how many would have moved into work in any case?

We can get an idea from data on benefit flows. These are a lot higher than is usually realised: even in this period of weak labour demand, 89 per cent of claims for Jobseekers' Allowance and 73 per cent of claims for Employment Support Allowance end within a year (pdf). But surely claimants receiving payments high enough to hit the cap spend longer on benefit? In fact, there’s no evidence for this, as the table shows.

Duration on benefit as percentage of caseload All out of work Subject to cap
Up to six months 23 19
Six months up to one year 11 12
One year and up to two years 11 14
Two years and up to five years 16 23
Five years and over 40 32


Source: Nomis and Commons Hansard


The main contribution to benefit entitlement exceeding the cap level of £26,000 a year pro rata is high housing benefit payments. The average monthly off-flow rate from housing benefit over the last year was 2 per cent. If we take this as a proxy for people moving into employment, then over a two month period, other things being equal, we would have expected about 2,300 out of 58,000 people (4 per cent) to have taken up work. So an off-flow into employment of 1,700 is no indication whatsoever that the cap is affecting behaviour. The government is claiming this figure as a "success", when all it shows is that people receiving high housing benefit payments sometimes move into employment. Who knew?

I don’t think Duncan Smith is being disingenuous here. I fear it is much worse than that: he is genuinely self-deceived. If he thinks that an off-flow of this scale offers any evidence of the effect of policy, it is because he and his government are fixated on long-term benefit claimants, largely for ideological reasons.

Thus the fact that people actually leave benefits in very large numbers every month without being forced is routinely airbrushed out of the presentation of government policy, while ministers make ludicrous claims about "families where nobody has worked for three generations" (a misleading claim addressed by Lindsey Macmillan and Paul Gregg).

So I suspect that the ideological message has been so profoundly internalised that the Secretary of State simply cannot conceive that anyone on this level of benefits could move into work other than in response to the threat of compulsion from his department, so any off-flow must count as evidence that the policy is succeeding.

Of course, I could be wrong. Maybe Duncan Smith is being disingenuous after all and knew exactly what he was doing when he sold the Telegraph and Mail this particular pup. That might even be less disturbing than the thought that he really believes this stuff.

A row of houses in Bath, England. Photograph: Getty Images

Declan Gaffney is a policy consultant specialising in social security, labour markets and equality. He blogs at l'Art Social

Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.